Joe Boston and cousin Pat Curry did not grow up on farms. But, they grew up around farming and were interested in raising cattle. They purchased 40 acres in southwestern Illinois, bought 15 commercial cows and headed to a local brewery for feed.
“People thought we were crazy to feed brewers grain, but I did my homework. I knew we could raise cattle profitably if we didn’t have much feed cost,” Boston says. He and Curry partnered five years ago as Fosterburg Feeders, near Fosterburg, Illinois. “When the Old Bakery Beer Company was opening in Alton as a craft brewery, I went in and asked about their spent brewers grains.”
James Rogalsky, brewer and co-owner of The Old Bakery Beer Co., was happy to oblige. Boston and Curry get the spent grain for free. The only requirement is they pick it up on call.
“It’s very common for breweries to give or sell spent grain to local cattle and hog farmers,” Rogalsky says. The Old Bakery Beer Co. brews 100% USDA-certified organic beer from several grain sources. “The byproduct we give them is all of the grain material left after we’ve converted the starches to sugar and separated the sweet liquid from the grain solids.”
Boston says his operation picks up the grain twice a week from the brewery, storing it in 55-gallon barrels. It remains in good condition for about two weeks stored this way, depending on the weather.
MATERIAL VARIETY. About 95% of the grain used for their beer production is malted barley, but Rogalsky also uses unmalted red winter wheat, some flaked rye and rolled oats. The brewery buys five types of malted barley from Briess Malt and Ingredients Co., in Chilton, Wisconsin, and flaked rye and rolled oats from Grain Millers, in Iowa. They get unmalted wheat from Cow Creek Organic Farm, in Paxton, Illinois.
Once Boston and Curry got familiar with feeding spent grains, they expanded into feeder cattle. They fed six head initially. After seeing a profit, the pair increased to 33 head this year.
“The brewers grain is not nutritionally better than corn for feeders, but it is free protein. That’s the difference for us,” Boston says. “Brewers grains has about three times the protein of corn.”
Protein levels in the spent grain, which comes in the form of wet mash, can range from 17 to 25%. In general, Boston feeds free-choice hay and a mixture of about 80% brewers grains and 20% corn. Closer to finishing, the ratio becomes 50-50. Feeding the brewers grain adds roughly 45 days to finishing.“There is a little guesswork involved. Every batch has different moisture levels,” Boston says. “It is not consistent and does not store as long as corn silage. You just have to learn to work with it.”
EXPANSION COMING. Calculating the cost of gain has been difficult to determine, Boston says, as the operation has one feed bill for feeders, cows and heifers. He adds the operation will need to develop a more efficient method of determining this as it continues to grow on the feeder cattle side.
Since expanding the number of feeders in their operation, Boston and Curry have had to find additional spent grain supplies.
4 Hands Brewing Co., in St. Louis, has also become a source.
The volume from 4 Hands is much higher and is transported via dump truck, and then stored in a pit silo.
“With the 4 Hands supplies, we have enough to feed the cows now, too. I believe we are seeing better milk production, although I have no way of knowing that for sure,” Boston says. “We are going to feed cow/calf pairs on only brewers grains over the winter to see how that goes.”
Boston encourages other producers to experiment with brewers grains. “Don’t be afraid of something new,” he says. “Every penny counts. Our cost of gain is manageable for our farm. If we had to buy all of the feed, we would not have any feeder cattle.”
Since Boston first stopped into The Old Bakery Beer Co., Rogalsky says at least a dozen other livestock producers have inquired about the spent brewers grains.
“I’d guess most of the spent grain is accounted for at local breweries, but there are other brewing byproducts that can be used for soil amendment or compost,” he says. “You just have to ask.”
Growing for a Growing Business:
Interested in raising grains for local breweries? As the number of microbreweries has exploded nationwide, so has demand for certain crops. James Rogalsky believes wheat is the best and easiest crop to grow. “A lot of breweries are willing to take wheat in its raw form. Besides cleaning and sizing, you won’t have to get it malted. That cuts out the middleman,” he says.
As for the future, Rogalsky says being an organic brewery limits options for the grain they can use. “A lot of farmers call me about hops, but it takes two to three years before hops mature and are able to produce quality cones,” he says. “Kernza, buckwheat or wild rice are possibilities, and we would talk to any organic farmers who grow those crops.”
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